Beneath the chatter about the Future Of Work lies a discontinuity

I have read at least ten articles and posts about the now-conventional notions about the future of work over the past few weeks. Perhaps this is because there is little breaking technology news in these vacation weeks, and the likewise conventional thinking that dominates year-endism, although in fact projections about what is coming over the horizon are appropriate at any point, really. But like New Year’s Eve, people want to pretend there is a point at which it’s time to say good-bye to the old and to start with the new.


Instead of conceptualizing the company as broken into managed units, with managers leading each unit and subordinates doing their piecework, we need to conceive of the company as a world — an ecology — built-up from each individual connecting to other individuals. And stringing these together into an interconnected whole involves associations like sets, and discernible elements like scenes, but increasingly, nothing like brigades and squads.

I’ve already called out some major trends in a piece last week (see The future of work: 4 trends for 2014) which forms part of a longer report, Tech trends for 2014. The short version:

    • The consumerization of work — A trend that might better be called Bring Your Own Mind, and which is part of a trend toward something more interesting than shiny devices with flat UIs on native, internet-aware apps. The larger trend though involves increased autonomy and self-reliance by the individual, the local set of workers involved in working socially, and larger social scenes with an organization devising their own work doctines. A key discontinuity in the work contract.
    • Dominance of mobile OS and the emergence of social OS – We are in a mobile-first world, now which is a break with the past, but not because of mobility. The break is two-part: 1/ these devices are always with us, with enormous societal and ultimately cultural implications, but, less discussed, 2/ the apps on these devices side-step the browser, and treat the internet and other people as primary, not secondary. This is a huge discontinuity.
    • Quantified self and the “me-ization” of productivity and performance – Individuals will use whatever tools they can get their hands on to better make sense of what is going on in their work sets. Note that the work set is a concept grounded in the idea that for each individual, they are the center of their own sphere of work: their set of contacts which who the individual interacts to get work done. Each person has distinctly different sets with who they work. Many sets overlap, but no two are the same, if only because the central node is different. So performance improvement, measurement, and analysis will become principally based at the individual. The concept of ‘teams’ and ‘departments’ — derived from top-down, hierarchical control theory — just gets in the way. What is going to replace it is performance at the individual, set, and scene levels of social scale. This is another discontinuity that will unmake convention Human Resources.
    • Algorithmic science displaces folklore: AI in the workplace – Another disruption is coming, where the folklore surrounding hiring, firing, and the like is replaced by algorithmic techniques now that science is pushing our noses in how bad we are in general at evaluating people’s likely success in work. Interviewing, is a total mess. Turning this over to Watson-level AI and data-mining algorithms will be one of the most critical disruptions in the break with the old bad ways of work. And it is inherently subversive, since this is hypothetically one of the things that executives are hypothetically good at doing, or the work culture of old at least asserts they are supposed to be.

    The most technological disruption that is coming is the break with the so-called ‘collaborative’ architecture of work management solutions. The collaborative model of online sharing and communication is also based on hierarchical models (largely) of teams and departments, where owners of work contexts (‘spaces’, ‘projects’, etc.) invite others to become members, and to collectively keep and share information, but in general, keeping that information and maybe even the existence of the contexts hidden from non-members. The sharing is limited by and shaped by organizational controls, and not the shape of the work.


    We will see more cooperative work, supported by loosely connected, small and simple apps, a break with the model of enterprise software vendors.
    And broadly-conceived one-size-fits-all ‘collaborative’ software solutions will increasingly be viewed as something like the obligation to wear a company uniform to work rather than something to unleash creativity, cooperation, and innovation.

    By the ‘shape of the work’ I mean two things: 1/ it doesn’t reflect the work activities or products, necessarily. Consider a piece of software under development in GitHub, or a magazine issue being developed in Adobe Creative Cloud: the environment for work is built-to-hand: it fits the form of the work being done. And 2/, it doesn’t necessarily reflect the way that each individual spins a working set of cooperators to get their own work done, and how these sets combine to form scenes, in which large numbers of overlapping sets are connected, socially, toward emergent ends.

    We will see more cooperative work, supported by loosely connected, small and simple apps, a break with the model of enterprise software vendors. Not because people want apps that remind them of Snapchat or Foursquare, but because people are doing work at local social scale, not across an enterprise, in general.


    Conventional thinking about the foundations of work are now in the process of quickly being turned inside out, or upside down. We are going through a time of accelerated change in this regard, like a state change from a frozen to a liquid form, and I sense a flood coming.

    This is the largest discontinuity. Instead of conceptualizing the company as broken into managed units, with managers leading each unit and subordinates doing their piecework, we need to conceive of the company as a world — an ecology — built-up from each individual connecting to other individuals. And stringing these together into an interconnected whole involves associations like sets, and discernible elements like scenes, but increasingly, nothing like brigades and squads.

    And broadly-conceived one-size-fits-all ‘collaborative’ software solutions will increasingly be viewed as something like the obligation to wear a company uniform to work rather than something to unleash creativity, cooperation, and innovation.

    So, beneath the growing discourse about the future of work founded on adoption curves and culture change there is a looming discontinuity, a break: perhaps a revolution led by a global movement. But one thing is certain: conventional thinking about the foundations of work are now in the process of quickly being turned inside out, or upside down. We are going through a time of accelerated change in this regard, like a state change from a frozen to a liquid form, and I sense a flood coming.

Relevant Analyst
Stowe Boyd

Stowe Boyd

Lead analyst, future of work Gigaom Research and stoweboyd.com

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